Getting in a crash is one of the scariest things that can happen to a cyclist. Even worse is when police assume that bicyclists are always at fault, even if they’ve got evidence to the contrary.
On a pleasant March morning in 2011, I was on my way to work, biking south on 14th St NW in the center of the right lane. As I approached W Street, I looked to make sure I had ample time to cross. The light was green. As I left the intersection, an SUV driver made a left turn across traffic, directly into my path. All I could do was hit the brakes hard.
The next thing I knew, I was on my back in the middle of the street. I tried to sit up, but failed pathetically and landed back on the road. My glasses were in a mangled heap nearby. Seconds later, some cyclists stopped by. None had seen the collision, but they locked my bike at the scene and helped me to a safe place. Someone called an ambulance, which showed up a few minutes later.
In the ambulance, Carlos Carter, a DC police officer, asked me what happened, and I told him. Once the EMTs realized I had hit my head, it was straight onto a backboard and off to the emergency room.
At George Washington University Hospital, an X-ray found that my shoulder was separated and several ligaments were torn. Doctors took me to a CAT scanner to check for broken bones.
During the test, Officer Carter entered the room. He asked me to sign a ticket for running a red light. I asked him to take a look at footage since I was certain I hadn’t. He wasn’t interested and asked me to sign the ticket and admit fault. I didn’t. He left.
Video proves that I was right
Often that would have been the end of the story, but, thankfully, not this one. I was confident that I was right, but after spending a day at the hospital, I began to doubt myself. When the police report was ready, I picked up a copy. Both the driver and another witness said I had run a red light.
Once I was mobile again, I returned to the scene of the collision. I tried to reconcile their version with mine. Was it possible that the light showed red in their direction but green in mine? I watched a few light cycles: the lights turned red at the same time. As I watched the cars roll through, I took a careful look around and noticed a camera with a Metropolitan Police Department label.
The camera was part of MPD’s CCTV Neighborhood-Based Cameras program. After calling the department, I learned that I had to file a DC Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the footage, which is erased every 7 to 10 days. Thanks to the careful work of Commander James Crane, Kaylin Junge Castelli, and Ofc. E.A. Hoffstetter, I was able to obtain the footage before it was deleted.
Here is the relevant segment. I appear 32 seconds into the video.
The video was extremely clear: I did everything right, while the driver did something dangerous and in violation of traffic laws. At 9:13:09 am (7 seconds into the video clip above), the light turned green. At 9:13:42 (32 seconds in), I appear on screen, and less than 2 seconds later, I cross the intersection. At 9:13:44.524, the driver made a left turn. 8 more cars pass through the intersection. At 9:14:08, the light turns red.
I was left with the same question I had before: why did the driver turn? She claimed that I ran a red light, which meant she saw me but decided to turn anyway. Or maybe she didn’t see me? I was wearing a bright orange jacket, and it wasn’t very sunny or dark out. Maybe she had really bad vision, she didn’t look, or wanted to hit me on purpose?
I will never really know for sure, but I do know that my shoulder ligaments will never regrow. I really wish she had bothered to look.
MPD refuses to admit its error in crash reporting
Now it was time to take action against the claims that I was at fault. I returned to the Third District police station, where a supervisor told me that only the officer who wrote the report and the ticket could change it. He asked me to tell my story again.
"Wait, you mean, you were biking and you want a ticket canceled?” he said, incredulous. “We all know how bikers behave. It must have been your fault. C’mon. You are a biker.”
When I suggested that he review the video, he refused. The supervisor said he’d contact the officer but that I shouldn’t expect anything to come of it, as I was a bicyclist.
So I filed an appeal. I scheduled a hearing and brought my evidence, but the officer didn’t bother to show up. The ticket was canceled. It took an extra several hours of unnecessary hassle, but it felt great.
However, to get compensation for my permanent injury, my medical bills, lost work, pain and suffering, I had to sue the driver and her insurance company. It’s hard to do in DC, which along with Maryland, Virginia and 2 other states, uses the “contributory negligence” standard for liability after crashes. Under that standard, if the victim was doing anything at all wrong, no matter how small, he or she can’t collect any damages.
Without the video, it would’ve been nearly impossible to prove that I did everything right. But thanks to the footage and the work of Patrick Regan and Paul Cornoni of Regan, Zambri, Long, and Betram, I subsequently sued and then settled with the driver and her insurance company, receiving compensation for my permanent partial disability.
I would rather the whole thing never happened, but it’s refreshing to know that the legal system can sometimes help hold negligent parties accountable and compensate those that they harm.
What I learned
From this experience, I learned two things. One is that police officers need substantially more training in different types of bicycle-automobile crashes. A driver turning left into oncoming bike traffic is a common form of collision, and that driver is usually at fault. Officer Carter botched the incident report by not asking the right questions.
Once the driver claimed I ran a red light, meaning she admitted to seeing me, the officer should have asked her why she decided to cause a collision, rather than assuming I was at fault. This would have helped him write the correct tickets and prepare an accurate report. And when someone shows up with clear evidence in their favor, he should’ve admitted his error, apologized, and fixed it.
Second, I learned that if you get hit by someone while bicycling, check for cameras. Without them, you’ll have to fight against the assumption that you were operating in an unsafe way, no matter what the driver did.